Volume XXXVI, Issue 2, November 1, 2013
When you hear the phrase “Amherst administrator,” whose name comes to mind? Maybe you think of Dean Mitton Shannon. Perhaps you picture Greg Call’s perfect head of hair. If you’re new here, maybe you imagine Peter Uvin in shining armor, storming the castle of Amherst on a white stallion, wielding the Sword of Open Dialogue to slay the fire-breathing dragon known as the Amherst Awkward. But I’d bet that one name—the name of the most important Amherst administrator—did not pop into your head: Biddy Martin.
In the student body’s imagination, Biddy has managed to separate herself from the people she manages, time and time again. While many Amherst administrators and the policies they enforce (e.g., dry orientation, no drinking in common spaces) remain unpopular among students, Biddy has succeeded in keeping her image immaculate. A best-selling student t-shirt reads, “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy, Biddy rockin’ everywhere”—try imagining this kind of shirt for Susie Mitton Shannon. Seeing Biddy walking her celebrity dog, Oscar, is fodder for Val conversation. Even the way we refer to her reflects the distinction between Biddy and her employees. While calling Deans Larimore and Mitton Shannon “Jim,” and “Susie,” feels uncomfortable at best, saying the phrase “President Martin,” feels like calling a close friend “sir” or “madam.”
But how did this difference emerge? Biddy is, after all, the ultimate administrator: A significant portion of her job involves the administration of administrators. But Biddy defeats the stereotype. She’s smooth. In personal conversations, she has the common touch, and is by all accounts a consummate listener. In public presentations, her positive, consensus-building approach and quick sense of humor make her a favorite. Most of all, though, Biddy has succeeded in maintaining her popularity because she seems constantly to rescue her fellow administrators after their errors, apologizing on their behalf and promising to make amends, even if she doesn’t always create important change in the long term.
After Angie Epifano’s harrowing account of mismanagement on the part of the Amherst administration, Biddy—using her status as a relative newcomer to her advantage—supported an examination of our compliance with Title IX and the creation of a series of committees to address issues of sexual respect on Amherst’s campus. She frequently emailed students to keep them abreast of resources for survivors and encouraged us to offer thoughts on ways the community could improve. When the administration’s plans for a new science center were abruptly abandoned, deepening disillusionment among students, Biddy weathered the storm by holding a series of meetings meant to spark dialogue and build consensus. When students called for a more prominent Multicultural Resource Center in Keefe, arguing that the administration had not devoted sufficient resources to meaningful dialogue, Biddy orchestrated an immediate restructuring of the campus center, creating a more visible and comfortable space for student discourse.
The Amherst administration’s most recent snafu provides yet another example of Biddy’s heroics. ResLife sent an email to all resident counselors that warned students against the school’s potentially predatory alumni: “A lot of alums come back for Homecoming pretty jaded with the bar scene and blind dating of the real world and are eager to take advantage of what they now perceive to be an ‘easy’ hook-up scene back at Amherst.” For the purposes of this article, let’s put aside the Amherst administration’s clumsy and out-of-touch description of modern dating. Let’s put aside the tacit admission that Amherst is not part of the real world. Let’s even put aside the administration’s decision to send this email to people it perceives as potential victims, rather than sending it to potential predators. Instead, let’s focus on the comment’s inescapable irony: The administration wants to warn its students against the alumni they will become, at least in part because of their four years at Amherst. It wants to warn students against the very people whose contributions make the school what it is.
And the parade continued: Peter Rooney, from Amherst’s Office of Public Affairs, told Newsweek (in an email, meaning he had time to consider his responses) that the message was meant for internal use only, in effect seeking to justify the comments by saying we weren’t supposed to hear them. He only made matters worse with an ill-conceived joke: the message was meant to “ensure a safe and festive Homecoming weekend…With the exception of Amherst losing the football game, that’s exactly how the weekend turned out to be!” But once again, Biddy came to the rescue, apologizing for the administration: “These failures of judgment are most disappointing. We will take appropriate measures to address them.” Biddy then called Rooney’s response “inadequate.” In the popular imagination, the heroes and the villains of this tale are clear. On the one hand, we have fumbling administrators who make offensive comments and then offer inadequate explanations. On the other, we have Biddy, acknowledging their faults, voicing our concerns, and promising to address the mistakes these administrators make.
Biddy Martin’s presidency has been marked by turmoil. As an individual, she’s risen to the occasion. She’s creative, responsive, and engaging. And this campus has made some meaningful progress on issues such as sexual respect and open dialogue. But there’s an old adage in sports: “Great players make their teammates better, too.” So the question for us as students is this: How long can we continue to support Biddy while her administrators drop the ball? When do we begin to hold her accountable for their mistakes? After all, each and every Amherst administrator plays for the same team.